I just spent a couple of amazing days at the University of Oxford at a workshop on agrobiodiversity. For me it felt like a true “university” with anthropologists, ecologists, geneticists, archaeobotanists and farmers coming together to share their skills and knowledge.
I learned so much in such a short space of time that I feel a bit overwhelmed. It’ll take me a while to digest it all, if I ever do. Many of the themes that I’ve previously raised on this blog loomed large – farm scale, labour inputs, perennial versus annual crops, biodiversity. I don’t think many of my basic perceptions on these things changed much (well, prejudices are hard to break) but I learned plenty to help me think about them more subtly. Things that particularly resonated for future thought and practice were:
- the possibilities for growing small-scale, low input wheat as outlined by the inspirational John Letts – and why permaculturists should perhaps be less dismissive of this distinguished grass
- the implications of the Neolithic farming package that spread with such apparent rapidity and uniformity across Europe from the Fertile Crescent
- the complexities of biomimicry, as described in Doyle McKey’s fascinating work on chinampa systems (not to mention the equally fascinating things he told me over dinner about ants)
- the role of homestead biochar
I learned quite a lot about date palms too, which might prove useful if the climate hots up and my wheat experiments don’t work out.
Listening to various presentations about indigenous small-scale farmers around the world (not least in France) I was struck by how – unlike here in England – these people have so often managed to retain their standing as what I would call “proper farmers”. A proper farmer in this definition is somebody who retains their own capacities to enhance the diversity of the agroecosystem, including the genetic basis of the crops they plant, and who produces food and fibre in sufficiency without making themselves functionaries of commercial systems that furnish them with exotic inputs but ultimately undercut economic and ecological wellbeing.
The irony here is that while we commonly think of European colonialism as destroying the indigenous cultures it met around the world, it may turn out that it wreaked its greatest destruction upon itself in undermining a proper European agriculture. The result, I suspect, may well be the one that acts of hubris usually encounter.